The Quest for Quiet

A few truly quiet places are left on earth, places without human noise—a section of Washington State rainforest, for example—but they are places far from roads and flight lanes where I will never go. That’s not what I’m talking about. I live in a city I love living in, don’t expect to ever be free of manmade noise. (A siren blew past as I was writing this.) But there used to be limits and lately they’ve been overrun.

Years ago we tried Limon, a new Peruvian restaurant, and found the food good, but the volume deafening. Voices across the table could not be heard. Phil asked if they could turn the music down.

“We’re going for a lounge ambiance,” the waiter replied. Rather snippily, I thought. The volume remained unchecked.

We did not return.

When Denver School of the Arts first moved to Montview and Quebec, the Johnson & Wales college campus across the street was lovely: trees, lawns, flowerbeds, benches and quiet. I took my creative writers there once or twice a semester to write.

The last year I taught, J & W had the idiot idea of installing outdoor speakers and playing pop music constantly, so there was never a moment for silent reflection. Perhaps they were trying to get high school kids off their lawns. If so, it worked: I stopped doing outdoor writing assignments there.

Some south Denver suburbanites call it the ghetto mall, but Northfield is our neighborhood shopping center. We visit its movie theatres, restaurants and stores regularly, and enjoy the diversity we find there. (I must say Mexican men seem especially stoic about holding the baby forever while their wives try on clothes, but maybe that’s just JC Penney’s.)

Here’s what I hate about Northfield: outdoor speakers. Music you don’t want to hear flooding the streets and sidewalks, clashing with other music you don’t want to hear pouring out of the stores and restaurants you walk past.

I’m used to the soft satellite rock, or whatever it is, at the dentist, but as I settled into the chair I realized I was hearing one song from speakers in my examination room and another from the reception desk across the hall. Look, I endorse the need for ambient noise to distract me from the drill, but no way could I survive that cavity-filling experience with competing stations assaulting me. I requested that one of them be turned off. The worst of it was the young dental assistant I asked didn’t know what I was talking about. Chicago and Barry Manilow duking it out and she was oblivious.

We belong to the Downtown Y, which most of the time provides a peaceful exercise experience, but aerobic and spinning classes are another thing, blast dance music or the soundtrack to the Lion King. If they leave their doors open, we sometimes are forced to shut them. Especially if it’s Lion King.

At the Parallel 17 bistro a month ago it was loud inside so we tried the patio and found a speaker looming over our table. We asked to have it turned down and our waitress quickly obliged. Thanking her, we were apologetic, attributed the need to our age. “Oh, no,” she protested. “Yesterday a twenty-something couple asked me to lower the music.”

Two things flashed through my mind: 1) it’s not just us (which means I can’t blame it on millennials as I was poised to do) and 2) if people regularly ask to turn it down, why keep turning it up?

We have a growing list of dining establishments we won’t patronize. Often it’s not just music, but people yelling at the top of their lungs, particularly at the bar, that earns the blacklist designation. I’ve begun a quest for restaurants and coffee shops conducive to inside voices conversation. If you know any, please tell me about them in the comments at the end of this rant.

Back on 17th Avenue’s restaurant row, we tried to dine at Parallel 17 again recently and found it closed for a private party. Limon is in the same block. We were skeptical, but it had been years, after all, and we already had a parking place. It was lovely: good food, conversation-friendly, good for the digestion dining experience. Music barely audible. We’ll go there again.

Posted in Humor, Neighborhood | 6 Comments

Translating History

Laura Méndez de Cuenca

Laura Méndez de Cuenca

Finishing a big writing project is double-edged. First there’s the euphoria: free at last! This stage is followed in approximately one hour by postpartum blues: it’s over? What’ll I do now?

In July I completed translating and editing the biography of an early Mexican feminist, Laura Méndez de Cuenca: Indomitable and Modern Woman (1853 – 1928) by Mílada Bazant, noted Mexican historian. Almost a year from start to finish, the project had several hiatuses when either the author or I could not work on it. Life intrudes. Actual work time was six months.

The original book is in its third edition. Ms. Bazant and I reduced it by 100 pages for the English version, ended with 325 pages, counting the introduction. She was wonderful to work with, communicated clearly, asked for my suggestions and often took them.

I cared about Laura Méndez, an extraordinary woman, by Chapter 2, wanted to intervene in her life. Laura, don’t get involved with that poet, please! Or defend her from her repressive society, which never forgot or forgave her great sin of having a child out of wedlock. Some of her best years were spent out of the country, in San Francisco, St. Louis and Berlin. She loved Berlin. Noting that city’s many bookstores, she wrote, “Where we put a pub, they build a bookstore.”

A project of a year’s duration permeates your life in many ways:

  1. Reading a newspaper, I find myself automatically revising its sentences. Superfluous modifiers! Conditional tense for no reason!
  1. I glance at a review of New York photographers and it begins: “New York street photographers were among the great flaneurs of the twentieth century.” This word made fashionable by Baudelaire meant “passionate spectator,” and figured in European aesthetics at the beginning of the twentieth century, notably when Laura lived in Berlin, 1906 – 1910.
  1. Harry MacLean has a Denver reading for his first novel: his previous books have been nonfiction and he does a mini-lecture on differences and similarities in writing fiction and non-fiction. I recently translated in Mílada’s introduction some of what he says—about history’s gaps and using what’s probable to fill them, tiptoeing on the precarious edge of fiction while writing history.
  1. A friend just back from Nicaragua saw a man begging for money to buy water and I recall Laura Méndez’ lifelong concern with the need for sanitation, access to clean water. In 1890s Mexico (crazy infant mortality rates, typhoid epidemics, shared latrines) she believed such improvements were essential to progress.
  1. I hate footnotes. I had 30 – 40 per chapter to decipher. One morning I woke from dreaming I was lecturing on footnotes. Horrors.

La pareja de poetas viajó en ferrocarril, el modernísimo medio de transporte recién inaugurado en 1873 por el presidente Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, hacia su primer destino fuera de la capital de la República, Veracruz, que era, desde la época colonial, la segunda ciudad en importancia en el país -después de la Ciudad de México- pues había sido la principal ruta comercial y cultural entre México y España.

The pair of poets and their surviving children Alicia and baby Horacio traveled by train to Veracruz, their first destination beyond Mexico City. The railroad was a modern means of transportation, inaugurated by President Sebastían Lerdo de Tejado in 1873, and since colonial times Veracruz had been the second most important city, being the principal commercial and cultural connection between Mexico and Spain.

The Spanish above is the first sentence of Chapter 5. In my translation it is the first two sentences and I thought it worth mentioning that Laura and Agustín had Alicia and baby Horacio with them, and they were the surviving children, because before this, Laura’s babies had died, soon after birth or within months, or in one case, at three years of age. It was typical of the times, and incomprehensible to us now.

In the St. Louis chapter, I researched a reference to Twain and suggested explaining that “the Gilded Age” was meant as a pejorative. A stanza of Laura’s translation of a Horace ode sent me to various existing English translations, but none matched hers, which she translated from Latin to Spanish. Fruitless hours later, I uneasily translated the stanza myself. I cut much St. Louis background, needed for Mexican readers, perhaps, but most Americans know agriculture has always been a core industry of the heartland. And so on.

It was not only a translation job, putting Spanish into good English, although that is difficult enough. It was not only unbraiding complex Spanish sentences into simpler English ones. Every chapter arrived from the author with a question: should this stay or go? I discovered I love editing.

But it’s done. I miss my weekly email from Mílada. I feel empty. What’s next?

Posted in Translation | 8 Comments

Two Moods: One Day and The Next

One Day

I’m irritable and don’t know why, so what kind of poet am I, alleged practitioner of the art of examined feelings? Can’t settle to work, can’t settle to anything, go dig in the dirt. Weeding: a job that’s never done, the job my mother did endlessly. As soon as the afternoon rain ended, she was out in steamy Florida air—weeds pull up easily then, roots and all—and returned to the house calmer. But not me, not today. Today three loads of weeds don’t stop my monkey mind’s swinging from peeve to peeve, feeling anew the pang of my mother’s death, though it’s been five years, fuming about the thudding bass coming from the apartments. I don’t make you listen to Bach fugues, do I? Why do you make me listen to your moronic beat? It’s a snarly mood, like I want to slap someone—idiot Trump would do—want to scream at climate change deniers: the evidence is in, Jack, it’s on us. We just gave permits to Shell to drill in the Arctic of all bad ideas and speaking of Big Oil (those corporations who are people and run the country and don’t give a shit about the rest of us) we’ve known for decades that fracking’s injection wells induce earthquakes and done nothing about it. Looking in the mirror doesn’t help: I’m over this aging crap, this wrinkling, discoloring skin, each day’s aches and pains, the way an hour of weeding leaves me sore. I’m waiting and I hate waiting. I’m waiting for the translation job to get here so I can finish it and I’m waiting for the will to stick to a diet and exercise for more than two days running and I’m waiting to find a cause for this two-year headache and I’m waiting for it to rain and I’m waiting to absorb the shock of seeing my stepson after open heart surgery, that long sutured incision down the middle of his chest, his face an old man’s. I’m waiting to find out how long it takes to stop feeling guilt and grief about my dead, whose number increases. I’m waiting for people to wake up, but by God I’m not waiting for a rebirth of wonder because I’m nursing this sulk too, sucking it up through a straw, tasting every bit before I’m willing to let it go.

The Next

We go to eat at Leña, which means firewood, their specialty the white oak grilled asado section of the menu, and at 5 it’s sunny, but impressively dark thunderclouds hover to the west as we set out. We imagine driving around and around for parking, imagine being drenched, but find a meter in the very block, and the oak gives savory taste to skewered veggies and pork and the décor is día de los muertos, the ubiquitous esqueletos and calaveras Posada never gets credit for, that we’ve made into T-shirt clichés, but I like seeing them anyway. As we finish Phil, that devil, says you know, Sweet Action is in this block: salted butterscotch, peppermint fudge, chocolate mole, whiskey pecan…Sun streams in storefront windows as we have ice cream after which clouds recover the sky and we’re contented walking back to the car, and look, Phil is walking, walking without pain, and even suggests, that bookstore in the next block, the door’s open. Ah, that pristine first edition in dust jacket of Leaf Storm and Other Stories I found in Brooklyn! We remember places by the books we found there, but our bookscouting days are done: we haven’t been in this store for years. It has a coffee bar now, two deadly serious young men on laptops, a big vinyl section, loud rap music with mothafugah in the chorus and a young couple giggling together in a corner. I’m looking at shabby old books and thinking, “I’m ready to go,” when the noise stops and suddenly Nina Simone, “I Put a Spell on You,” floods me with memories of waitressing in a California jazz club and the incomparable Nina Simone on the jukebox when the band took a break. I’m browsing the poetry, one narrow shelf, become aware as I slide a book back, that someone’s behind me: a young Chicano, longish black hair, apologizes. Also apologetic, I say, “this is all the poetry they have,” pull out that book again: “this is cool, a verse novel, a narrative poem, the poet’s from Colorado.” “Oh, Ludlow,” he says. “People should know about that. I think I’ll buy it if you don’t.” “Be my guest,” I say, smiling. And here I am pushing poetry on unsuspecting young men and getting a hit of Nina Simone on a Wednesday night, and here’s Phil walking comfortably up and down the block, and when we leave the bookstore a fast spatter of rain has come and gone without our even knowing it.

Posted in Memoir | 5 Comments

Elegy for a Peach Tree

Two peach trees graced the back yard of the big house to the north when we moved here thirty years ago. I harvested what hung over my fence. No one else did and the yard had gone to weeds. My neighbor two doors south came here in 1945, said the big house and yard were spectacular in their glory days. My peach tree was a volunteer, sprouted twenty-some years ago.

It turned out to be the last of its tribe. A developer bought the neglected big house in the 90s, disregarded our protests, cut everything down—the peach trees, the grand old maple, the rose bush—inexplicably leaving a crab apple near the house and an otherwise bare yard. When that happened, my little peach was six feet tall, its pink blossoms brightening my world each April.

Except for major events like the Blizzard of ’82, weather memories blur quickly. I don’t recall this, but last November a cold front dove us overnight from the mid-60s to 13. Many trees hadn’t hardened yet, including my peach. This spring, buds appeared, never opened, shrank; a few leaves, bright green, withered and fell. All spring I peered daily into its branches seeking signs of life.

The peach in 2012,  a good year

The peach in 2012, a good year

The August I had peaches for the first time, I knew nothing, appealed to Mardi and don José. “Will they ripen if I pick them?” They were still greenish, but squirrels were ravaging them like candy. We stood in Mardi’s back yard, looking at sagging, peach-laden branches drooping over her fence.

A squirrel yanked off a peach, sat on its haunches, took three bites and dropped it. I’d tried dangling shiny things, nets, coyote urine and charging out the back door with a broom. The squirrels looked at me, like, “are you kidding, lady?”

“Pimiento,” Mardi said wisely, “pimiento o cal.” She mimed throwing pepper or lime over the branches. Too late now, though. Do it when the fruit is chartreuse and the size of olives. Squinting into the branches doubtfully, Mardi pulled a peach and bit into it. Her frown became delight.“Son listos, son dulces,” she exclaimed.

Don José, who had been rather reserved about these peaches, picked another and examined it closely, a light dawning. “Son duraznos blancos,” he beamed. “Los crecen en México.”

“The ones in your yard are yours,” I proclaimed the obvious, but these neighbors wouldn’t have touched a peach until I said it. Now that he knew what they were, don José became enthusiastic, picked a bagful. White peaches, like they grow in Mexico. They were, as Mardi said, ready, and sweet.

Another good year, 2010

Another good year, 2010

By early September, I’d spent hours pruning back to one peach every few inches but still lost several slender branches, breaking under their sweet burden. It had been an ideal spring: generous rain, no late freezes. Blossoms covered the tree and fluttered down petal by pink petal without an intervening frost. Much of September passed in picking and putting up peaches. I’d never done that before but everything I needed to know was online. Ripeness can’t be gauged by the rosiness on their sun side: the green of the whole has to turn yellowish before they’ll finish in a paper bag. Those that are ready leave the stem willingly. Those that are not resist letting go, much like children.

If you scald peaches, they slip easily out of their suede skins. By the last batch I knew a minute or two in hot water was enough and when I plucked one out, could tell ripeness by touch. A push of my thumb at the stem indentation and the skin slid off on ripe ones, leaving a paler wash of red and yellow, the pigment of the peel staining the flesh beneath. Denuded peaches are satisfying to contemplate, muted in color, moist and glistening as if glazed. Those that resist peeling are too green, can’t be forced. They offer evidence I’ve been impatient in trying to beat the squirrels.

When that first season ended, I had six quarts of sliced peaches in the freezer. Five jars of preserves and three of chutney glowed on the shelves. I’d made pies and cobblers and given bagsful away. I’d had the exquisite pleasure of selecting an exactly ripe fruit—one I’d climbed the ladder to reach—and biting into its fragrant, sun-warmed flesh.

Those pleasures and that hard work, two things so often joined, recurred several seasons, but not many. Early bloomers have a rough go in Colorado, and those pink petals were often battered by April snow. Peach trees have a 25-30 year lifespan, and mine was in that range. I will miss this tree’s blossoms and bounty, yes, but also its gracefully curved leaf, its deep shade, its connection to the past.

2015-07-05 Dead tree12.19.58

The Peach tree in July, 2015

Posted in Memoir, Neighborhood | 10 Comments